Police Chase

Kokomo Police officers and other emergency personnel gather at the scene of a fatal accident Sept. 18 that killed the driver of a fleeing Honda Civic. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

The father of a 15-year-old boy who died during a police pursuit last fall is suing the Kokomo Police Department, saying officers acted improperly and the department “engaged in a pattern of misinformation.”

Also named in the lawsuit, filed by Travis Abston Sr., is the Battle Ground Police Department and its marshal, who Abston says knowingly provided the KPD with misinformation about his son that led directly to his death on Sept. 18, 2018.

Travis L. Abston Jr., 15, of Battle Ground, died in a two-car accident on Dixon Road last September while fleeing from police during a prolonged chase that wound through Kokomo city streets and left one school closed for the day following reports he was potentially armed and dangerous.

Abston Jr. suffered blunt force trauma to the head, neck and chest, and Howard County Coroner Steven Seele has said the boy was high on methamphetamine at the time of the fatal crash.

Abston Sr., meanwhile, says law enforcement is at fault and that his son’s death was avoidable. He is suing for damages in Tippecanoe County court and has demanded a jury trial. The lawsuit was filed July 8.

Kokomo corporation counsel Beth Copeland said: "The City has not been served with a copy of this lawsuit, and therefore, has not had an opportunity to review the allegations."

Between 5:30-5:45 a.m. Sept. 18, 2018, says the lawsuit, Abston Sr. called the Tippecanoe County sheriff to report fraudulent credit card use at a Battle Ground gas station after being notified by his credit card company.

The Tippecanoe County sheriff then contacted the Battle Ground Police Department, asking someone to report to Abston Sr.’s home.

Burk arrived at the home shortly after, and the two men drove separately to the gas station, where they reviewed video showing Abston Jr. had been the one to attempt to use the credit card.

A gas station employee also described the vehicle drive by Abston Jr., leading Abston Sr. to realize his son had stolen his car, a black 2010 Honda Civic LX.

Burk and Abston Sr. then parted ways, and Burk went to file a missing-vehicle report.

Then, at 6:42 a.m., Abston Sr. attempted to contact the KPD, saying his son had taken his car and credit card and would likely be going to the boy’s mother’s home in Kokomo.

The lawsuit alleges the "dispatcher" who answered refused to take Abston Sr.’s call and said the situation was outside the local jurisdiction.

While the lawsuit claims the dispatcher was from the KPD, it is unclear whether he called the department directly or the Howard County dispatch center. All non-emergency police calls are directed to the dispatch center.

Abston Sr., according to the lawsuit, also contacted “the Kokomo Juvenile Detention Center,” possibly the Kinsey Youth Center, and the local juvenile court in hopes officials could help find his son.

At 8:20 a.m., he claims, the KPD contacted Abston Sr., who repeated the previously provided information.

Burk then returned to Abston Sr.’s home, where the two looked at Abston Jr.’s cellphone, which contained a 2017 picture of the boy holding a firearm.

“Senior then emphasized that neither Junior nor Senior possessed or carried any firearms and there were no firearms in the house,” reads the lawsuit.

“Moreover, nothing in Junior’s phone indicated he intended to cause harm to anyone that morning or that he intended to carry out an assault at a school.”

Nonetheless, Burk knowingly falsely reported to the KPD that Abston Jr. “was or could be in possession of a gun” and was driving to Kokomo possibly to carry out a school shooting, claims the lawsuit, which says Burk made the call without Abston Sr.’s knowledge.

Local law enforcement has said it was around 7 a.m. that day when Howard County’s dispatch center was informed by the Battle Ground Police Department that a black Honda Civic was stolen, and local authorities were alerted to keep an eye out for the vehicle.

"Information received indicated the individual in possession of the stolen vehicle was possibly armed and dangerous and en route to Kokomo, Indiana, to possibly do harm to an individual," according to a media release from the KPD.

Kokomo police acknowledged the department had "recent incidents involving firearms with this alleged suspect,” referring to Abston Jr.

A corporate official with The Crossing at the time confirmed the school’s Kokomo campus was informed by police the morning of Sept. 18, 2018, that “a credible threat” had been made against a specific student.

School officials closed The Crossing for the day, and officers were sent to the student’s home.

The lawsuit, however, claims it was the result of “Burk’s knowing and intentional dissemination” of false information, after which KPD officers spotted the vehicle driven by Abston Jr.

It was around noon when Kokomo police spotted the Honda Civic in the area of Main and Vaile and attempted to stop the vehicle. Instead, Abston Jr. sped away and officers gave chase.

The chase, which left Kokomo police officers and Howard County sheriff’s deputies racing down city streets, including throughout downtown, ultimately ended near Faith Baptist Church, at 600 S. Dixon Road, in a collision with another car, a black Ford Taurus SE.

Abston Jr. was declared dead at the scene.

Abston Sr., after being notified of his son’s death, contacted Burk to discuss what the marshal told Kokomo police, claims the lawsuit.

It says Burk ended the initial call and called the father back on a recorded line, denying he informed the KPD that Abston Jr. had been armed and intended to attack a Kokomo student.

Afterwards, the KPD “engaged in a pattern of misinformation to the public in order to justify its actions, including disclosing Junior’s name to the public and advising that Junior had intended to carry out a school shooting, despite knowing there was no evidence, much less probable cause, of this or any other felonious activity prior to the fatal pursuit,” reads the lawsuit, which says Abston Jr. was not found with a firearm following the chase.

Abston Sr. also claims that at no point did any law enforcement agency contact him to verify or discuss whether his son may have been armed.

The pursuit, it notes, started near the boy’s mother’s house.

Tribune reporting at the time, meanwhile, shows it was Howard County Coroner Steven Seele who identified Abston Jr.

The lawsuit, which followed a tort claim filed last November, also accuses the KPD of only disclosing information about its investigation that "would denigrate Junior and his reputation.”

It also alleges that the KPD failed to train its offers in proper pursuit techniques and failed to implement and/or enforce safe pursuit policies.

It accuses the department, as well, of failing to properly investigate information about Abston Jr. before the pursuit and failing to de-escalate the situation “once the pursuit became dangerous and protracted.”

The lawsuit goes on to say “careless and negligent acts” on the part of Kokomo and Battle Ground police, specifically Burk, led directly to Abston Jr.’s death.

Burk did not return a request for comment.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.